Saturday, 19 June 2010


This was the final talk in a series on the Five Precepts given to the Tuesday night 'drop-in' group at the Bristol Buddhist Centre. 

When we considered the previous four precepts, they seem fairly obvious on the face of it but as we look a little closer we began to see subtleties and grey areas that were not so apparent. So it is with the Fifth Precept, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants’.

Firstly, let’s look at the obvious. This is a clear reference to alcohol and drugs. Does this mean a total abstention or do Buddhists tend to allow themselves a little license, imbibing in moderation? As usual, it depends on which tradition you follow and also your personal choice. Where do you draw the line in the light of your own experience?

Theravadan Buddhists tend to interpret this as total abstention from alcohol and recreational drugs. In Asia they usually call for bars to be closed on Buddhist festival days. Mahayana practitioners are more ambiguous although they consider that selling alcohol is not a ‘right livelihood’ occupation as described in the Noble Eightfold Path.

Zen teacher Reb Anderson says, "In the broadest sense, anything we ingest, inhale, or inject into our system … becomes an intoxicant”. He describes the act of intoxication as bringing something into yourself to manipulate your experience. This "something" can be "coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, sex, sleep, power, fame, and even food."

This doesn't mean we should prohibit ourselves from using coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, etc. It simply means to take care not to use them as intoxicants; as ways of soothing and distracting ourselves from the direct and intimate experience of life. In other words, whatever we use to distract ourselves into heedlessness is an intoxicant.

In the course of our lives most of us develop mental and physical habits that enable nice, cozy states of heedlessness. The challenge of working with the Fifth Precept is to identify what those are and deal with them. From this perspective, the question of whether to abstain from alcohol entirely or drink in moderation is an individual one that requires some spiritual maturity and self-honesty.

Of course we all understand the dangers present in the over consumption of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. What is perhaps surprising is that the Buddha was equally aware.

The Buddha described addiction to intoxicants as one of the six causes of ruin. It brings about six main disadvantages: loss of wealth, quarrels and strife, a poor state of health (liability to diseases), a source of disgrace, shameless and indecent behavior, weakened intelligence and mental faculties. I think he nailed it pretty well.

Those of us who have an interest in meditation and Buddhism would tend to either abstain from drugs and alcohol or be moderate in our consumption. But have we considered Reb Anderson’s broader view. How about his view of “, tea, chewing gum, etc.” My experience of Buddhism is that if floats on a lake of tea and most of us would be reluctant to regard it as an ‘intoxicant’.

I guess it is like everything else – it comes down to a question of degree. Coffee is a stimulant. Some people get a caffeine ‘buzz’ when they drink coffee and they feel it necessary to exclude or reduce consumption to the minimum. For others, their consumption of tea has become compulsive, mindlessly putting the kettle on every hour or so although they are in no need of refreshment or hydration.

Reb Andersen goes on to say that his intoxicant is television and we know that TV can become addictive – particularly soaps. I suppose this cannot be truly considered an intoxicant unless we reach a point where the emotions revealed and expressed in TV dramas become a substitute for the real thing. We may watch East Enders and become concerned, angry, compassionate and sad as we empathise in the characters and scenarios being portrayed on the screen but can’t do we feel the same level of engagement with real life and real people.

Heedlessness seems to be the key word when considering what constitutes an intoxicant. Anything that we consume, engage with or participate in to the point where we are heedless of the affect on our mental states, our clarity of mind and our general wellbeing is an intoxicant.

Mindfulness is the positive counterpart of this precept. Those of us who aspire to follow the teachings of the Buddha, or simply wish to develop a clearer vision of ourselves and the world that surrounds us, invest time and energy in meditation, retreats, discussion and study. We seek to become more mindful, more aware with a greater degree of clarity. The heedless use of any intoxicant whether it be alcohol, drugs, nicotine, coffee, internet sites, Twitter, salted peanuts (my personal obsession) soap operas, sex (Tiger Woods is currently being treated for sex addiction) runs counter to these aims and if ignored would render all the effort pointless.

So once again, Buddhism requires us to take responsibility for our own actions. We have to recognise our personal intoxicants, consider whether if our use of them is heedless and then decide where we draw the line. We have to make these judgements based on our own experience. Do we abstain totally or do we have sufficient self awareness to ensure moderation?

I use three intoxicants. The first two are good whisky and good coffee. There hasn’t been a bottle of whisky in my house since Christmas, but when it is there, I take a glass now and then, usually on a Friday night to mark the end of the week - and with a generous splash of water.

Coffee is a once-a-day habit. I have an espresso maker and my one extravagance is good quality coffee. However, I think that I am probably more addicted to the whole process of making my 11 o’clock ‘cortado’ (a Spanish version of an Italian macchiato) as I am to the actual coffee. It is time away from whatever I am working on plus the familiar noise as I steam the milk and the smell of the coffee rising as it dribbles into the cup, I enjoy as much as anything.

Is my consumption of whisky and coffee heedless? It certainly was in the past, but no longer.

The third intoxicant is food. During times of stress and anxiety, I ‘comfort eat’ and I definitely do so to ‘manipulate my experience’. I am still working on this one.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


I recently gave this talk as part of a series on the Five Precepts at a Tuesday drop-in group:

When we considered the first precept: abstention from killing living beings, it quickly became apparent that this extended beyond not committing murder and led to many other ethical considerations. Similarly, the second precept is not constrained to simply undertaking not to steal. But before we broaden the context, let’s look at the most obvious implication of this precept.

Many years ago I used to be an RAF Policeman. During my training I had to learn the definition of stealing: ‘A person steals who takes and carries away any article capable of being stolen, with the intent at such time of taking, to permanently deprive the owner thereof.’

Intent is obviously important. If a friend visits your home and leaves their umbrella behind, you have obviously not stolen it. You intend to take it back to them but simply don’t get round to it. That’s not stealing, that’s procrastination. You friend doesn’t contact you and ask for it back so they don’t seem to miss it and meanwhile, you find it quite useful to have an umbrella so you now regard it as yours. You now have the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the umbrella. That’s stealing.

To take something from another person against their wishes is also an act of extreme egotism. The taker believes their need to possess an object is more important than the owner’s rights to their property. Taking the not given on a lesser scale can also be found closer to home. For example, failing to repay loans from friends and family within the agreed time limit.
Borrowing books that we fail to return once they are read is a common way to take that which is not given.

How many of us have added that little extra to our expenses claims? My favourite justification is, “Well I know I’m bound to have forgotten to claim something so I am entitled to add a bit to compensate”. Obviously I am no saint in these matters. I work from home and my company pays for any postage charges I incur. I used to mail out a great deal so I have a system whereby I can purchase credit from Royal Mail and print off stamps on my computer. These costs are claimed from my employer. Over the last 9 months, I have been mailing out much less but as I live miles away from the nearest Post Office, I have been known to print off stamps using my company’s credit for my personal mail. Once again, there is always justification, “They don’t realise how much extra time I work that I don’t get paid for…” Generosity is supposed to be the positive aspect of the Second Precept yet I use it to justify taking the not given.

Sadly we live in a society where moral judgements are often based on what we can get away with. Imagine what you would do if your employer made and error and paid you twice or you were reimbursed twice for a product you bought over the internet and returned because it was not suitable for use, Both these things have happened to me in the past 12 months. So, don’t be too quick to say, “Oh I never steal so this precept is easy”. Are we all as scrupulously honest as we like to think we are?

There are many other ways the not given can be taken and these are not so obvious. You wake up in the morning. You meditate. The sun is shining and you feel great. You are light on your feet, you look in the mirror when you clean your teeth and you see a happy person. Then your partner or someone at work or a person on the till in the supermarket, for whatever reason, is having a really bad day. They interact negatively with you and quite deliberately bring you down. They have deprived you of your good humour and spoilt your nice day. They have taken something from you that you were enjoying and you wished to keep.

More examples: you have had a row or a dispute of some kind. You are hurt and angry. You have a good friend who you know will understand and be sympathetic to the bruising you have been submitted to. So you call them on the phone. They answer, but they mention that they are just leaving go to the cinema. You ignore this and continue to pour your troubles down the line. Your friend is sympathetic but it is obvious from their voice that this is not the best time. You pretend you haven’t picked up this signal and continue to impose yourself. You are taking the not given.

Denying someone the space to hold their own views and opinions is another way we can take the not given. Parents can so easily do this to their children – usually with the best motives but it is a sensitive bit of tight-rope walking. You may want them to follow you into the family business, observe the same religion, vote the same way. You want them accept your point of view but do you want them to think for themselves, or do you want to remove any options to ensure that they will think like you?


This is the positive counterpart of the second precept. You could almost say it is the antidote.

You can give in obvious ways; make a standing order to Amnesty International or the Bristol Buddhist Centre; sponsor a friend who is riding from Lands End to John O’Groats to raise money for a favourite charity. You can buy a copy of Big Issue, telling the vendor to keep the change. If you have had an enjoyable Tuesday evening at the Centre, you could put a little bonus in the Dana Bowl. But this is to imply that generosity is always about giving money.

You can also put in a few extra hours at work, even though you know that you won’t get paid for it but recognise it will make life easier for others. You could offer the book your friend wishes to borrow and tell them, “It’s a great book, don’t give it back, pass it on to someone else”. You may be a little broke and not have much to put in the Dana Bowl but you are happy to give a little time to stay behind and wash the cups at the end of the evening.

When your friend rings just as you are going out of the door, don’t allow them to impose but recognise that this is something they need to talk about and promise them you will call them later – then ensure that you do.

Sometimes giving generously can cost nothing at all. More years ago than I wish to remember, I was being trained as a salesman for J Lyons, Tea & Coffee Division. I was to practice my salesmanship in the field whilst being observed by the Training Manager, a grey haired Scotsman who had been in the business for many years. I was calling on hard-nosed supermarket managers in South London. The morning had not gone well and I had taken a bit of bruising. We stopped for lunch and in spite of the Training Manager’s gentle encouragement I was beginning to feel quite low. As we parked and walked to the next store, we both needed a pee break. We came to one of those Victorian conveniences set underground. As we descended the steps there was a long brass rail which gleamed like gold. Similarly, all the brass fittings in the toilets were freshly polished. The attendant sat in a small room reading Sporting Life. On the way out, the Training Manager put his head round the door.
“Are you the guy that polishes all this brass-work?”
The man looked up and nodded.
“It must take you hours – I’ve never seen a toilet look so sparkling”
The man’s face broke out in a broad smile, “Oh, thanks a lot”
As we ascended the stairs I said, “What was all that about?”
“Oh nothing really, it’s a rotten job so I just gave the guy a nice day”.

To summarise; there are as many ways to give generously as there are ways to take that which is not given. Find a little time to look inwards; see if you recognise ways that you may sometimes take that which is not given but perhaps have never recognised before. You may even spot ways that you can act with generosity that you have never previously considered.

“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.”
Jackson Brown